Leslie Limon, a blogger and mother of four, already knows what she would like placed on her own Day of the Dead altar some day: a rolling pin, a Spanish/English dictionarya bouquet of Gerbera daisies, cinnamon-scented candles, and a bottle of Coca-Cola from Mexico.

The former English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher put together a wish list after visiting altars honoring departed loved ones at a Dia de los Muertos celebration in central Mexico, where she lives with her family.

It's not meant to be morbid, Limon explains. She simply loves the centuries-old holiday and what it represents: a chance to celebrate, not mourn, family and friends who have passed away.

An increasing number of people from many ethnic and cultural backgrounds agree with her. The holiday, which takes place every November 1 and 2, has experienced a surge of popularity in recent years, with celebrations taking place across the United States and retail stores stocking colorful, skull-themed decorations on store shelves alongside Halloween candy and Jack-o'-lanterns.

Coca-Cola teamed up with Stripes Convenience Stores in 2015 to create special-edition commemorative cups created by two Millennial artists, who drew inspiration from their own South Texas roots for their designs. Next year, a major film studio is planning to release a feature movie based on the holiday.

“We don't want to compete with Halloween. Day of the Dead has its own following," says Celine Mares, creative director of one of the oldest and largest U.S. Day of the Dead events at the Hollywood Forever cemetery in Los Angeles.

At the same time, Mares says, it's important to expose the traditions of Dia de los Muertos to younger generations and preserve its importance and meaning. If mainstream exposure and marketing help foster that, she says, so be it.

Hollywood Forever Cemetery

As awareness of the holiday has grown, Mares says, “We found that different ethnicities want to do the same for their loved ones. It crosses all borders and races and income levels."

In its first year, 1999, the Hollywood Forever event attracted about 300 people. “Half of them were friends and family," Mares admits. This year, 30,000 people are expected at the event, which will feature music and dance performances on four stages, processions and 100 altars, says Hollywood Forever owner Tyler Cassity.

Typical offerings on a Day of the Dead altar may include photos and the favorite foods and drinks of beloved ancestors. 

Leslie Limon

"This is a holiday that embraces history, favors heritage, and has one generation bridging another. We loved that," Cassity says in recalling the initial plan to hold an event around Day of the Dead. "So we said, 'Let's get some altars and performers and see if the community responds'. And they did. We realized people are hungry for this."

'This is a holiday that embraces history, favors heritage, and has one generation bridging another.'  

Day of the Dead rituals date back some 3,000 years ago, when the Aztecs honored the lives of their beloved ancestors by welcoming their spirits to the land of the living once a year. Preparations begin weeks before the event as households gather items, known as ofrendas, meant to entice the spirits back. Sweet breads, marigolds, favorite drinks, photographs, and candied sugar skulls are among the typical offerings placed on a loved one's altar.

Sugar skulls, made from plastic molds and decorated with frosting, glitter and food coloring, “represent a departed soul and remind us of the fragility of life," says Angela Villalba, owner of MexicanSugarSkull.com, an online store specializing in Mexican folk art and Day of the Dead-themed merchandise. Villalba also keeps track of Day of the Dead events around the country. This year, she lists 85 events taking place in 27 states and Washington, D.C.

MexicanSugarSkull.com

"Folks need an excuse to talk about their dead in a fun and easy atmosphere with art, food, music and activities with their kids and family," Villalba says. “One doesn't need to be Latino to love the holiday."

Some festivities take the form of a community street fair or museum exhibit, while others, like the Hollywood Forever event, are an all-day music-filled bash in which award prizes are awarded for outstanding altars.

Day of the Dead altars can be as simple as a fold-up table with a few flowers and a photo of a loved one, notes Hollywood Forever's Mares, or they can be elaborate installations complete with pyramids, puppets and contemporary elements like honoring a deceased pet or celebrity. One of Mares's favorite prize-winning altars honored five generations of family with aquinceañera theme, the Latin American tradition of celebrating a girl's 15th birthday with a church blessing and lavish party.

Hollywood Forever Cemetery

While Day of the Dead participants tend to keep Halloween out of their holiday, the same can't be said for incorporating Day of the Dead elements into October 31st traditions, observers say. Many Halloween costume retailers now sell and market Day of the Dead-themed accessories, from masks and sugar skull makeup kits to complete skeleton costumes topped with veils and flower headbands.

Blogger Leslie Limon, who grew up in the United States, admits she wouldn't mind having a Jack-o'-lantern on her Day of the Dead altar one day, along with her favorite food, drinks and other items, "to represent my love of American holidays."

"Dia de los Muertos isn't one of those holidays I've always celebrated," says Limon. "But with each year that passes, I embrace it more and more."